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NaNoWriMo: Lessons

National Novel Writing Month is like boot camp for writers. Even though I work as a professional writer and writing coach, I still need the kind of tune-up you get from attending boot camp. Every year National Novel Writing Month gives me that—and I do not even have to leave my house. I crossed the finish line yesterday morning and began drafting a list of lessons I’d learned. First on my list: this is not the month to try losing weight. I’ll spare you the gory details. Here are the five lessons that are suitable for the blogosphere:

1. Word count isn’t everything (but you do need a way to measure your progress). Word count is a practical way for the NaNoWriMo site to measure progress. But here’s the thing—on the days I did not meet my word count goal, I was still spending way more time thinking about and writing my novel than I had all year. Here’s the bottom line: it helps to have a tool to measure our progress. During NaNoWriMo, we use word count. From now on, you can use whatever measurement tool works for you: the amount of time you spent writing, the tasks you completed, or even the amount of information you have digested.

2. Skip the boring parts. Not quite two weeks into NaNoWriMo, I discovered that I was bored with my story. All I wanted to do was curl up on the sofa under a blanket and sleep. But I couldn’t—I had too much to do. So I pulled out a favorite writing book, Josip Novakovitch’s Fiction Writers Workshop, and used a few of the exercises to have a bit of fun with my characters. It was a blast. Seriously. For the first time, I let go of trying to control the characters and let them do wild and crazy things. Since then, I have approached every writing session with this question: what would be fun to write about today? Here’s the thing: if I am bored, chances are my readers will be bored, too. So write what energizes you.


3. Working all the time is not a recipe for success. It is a recipe for burnout. I’m a big believer in writing every day no matter what. In my book, Write-A-Thon, I remind readers that inspiration happens during the writing process and not before. That said, I know that we all need to prime the pump. If we show up to our writing day after day, year after year, and never take time to prime the pump, we are not going to be able to access the deep well of wisdom inside ourselves. We need to get away from our desks and immerse ourselves in life. This year, I noticed that my most productive writing sessions followed inspiration breaks. When I took time to nap, see art, hear live music performed, read books, and connect with friends and strangers, I left those experiences refreshed and renewed. While it may seem like a good idea to work without stopping, it is not. It is a recipe for burnout. Find an adventure instead!

4. Rough drafts are called rough drafts for a reason. Despite knowing the value of poor first draft, despite writing some really rough drafts myself, I am still vulnerable to the thought that, “this should sound better than it does.” As I wrote about a grade-school student telling her friend she felt discombobulated, I knew that the word was absolutely wrong even for a prodigy. I lambasted myself for writing well above the grade level I was aiming for. Then I remembered the wisdom I had been reading and repeating for years: rough drafts are meant to be rough. Your first draft will suck—and that is just how it should be.

5. Schedule it. Even after working as a professional writer for many years, I know that if I do not schedule time to work on a specific project, it does not happen. I usually write every single day, but I rarely get to my dream projects. When I do NaNoWriMo, I choose one of my dream projects to write—so I schedule time for it every day. Now that NaNoWriMo is ending, I will need to keep scheduling time to work on the writing that matters to me!

How about you? What did you learn from National Novel Writing Month this year?

PS: Don’t forget to stop by the blog tomorrow for a virtual #NaNoWriMo winner party!






3 Responses

  1. Pingback : NaNoWriMo lessons, or, why writing advice can be so subjective… « Erik Robert Nelson

  2. Michelle, the five lessons you learned during the National Novel Writing Month are all good points and things that I can easily identify with when I wrote my three novels. And as I read your book “Write-A-Thon…” it talks about so many things I wish I had known about when I did my writing. I suppose some of us have some regrets in our life and not learning more about the life of a writer is one of them. And so for any and every writer today, I certainly would recommend that they read “Write-A-Thon…” Your hard work in drafting such an excellent book is commendable. Thank you, Rochelle Melander.

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